Say Sorry and Mean It

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
The five actions all companies should take when things go wrong.

It is undeniable that at some point, you'll make a mistake that will disappoint customers. Companies are made up of people, and we all drop the ball sometimes.

But how you apologize? How you fix the situation is what makes the difference? This will determine if customers stay and grow your business, or if they go and take others with them.

Remember when you were a kid and your brother or sister punched you? Sure they apologized. But it didn't mean much because a) your mom or dad was holding that sibling by the shoulders prompting the words; and b) you'd been apologized to many times before just to be punched again another day!

This is what companies put their customers through when they deliver a hollow apology and then don't fix the problem. They'll likely get credit when an apology is made once. But when the problem repeats, another apology won't cut it. Your currency with customers will dwindle and out the door they'll run, telling everyone they know about how you dropped the ball and didn't pick it back up again.

Think about apologizing to customers as a "peace process" that needs to be put into place when you make a mistake. That peace process you may still be waiting to receive from your brother is not about mitigating who's to blame; it's about restoring and preserving the relationship.

Inside most businesses, we make it difficult for the frontline to embrace the customer, say the words "I'm sorry," and fix the problem. Customers are bounced around like a hot potato from department to department, person to person making matters worse. Rule #1: "own the customer" when someone is upset. Even if you have to find the answer from another part of the company, stop the bounce.

Even the largely cautious healthcare industry is now embracing the power of empathy and the impact of those two little words. Fear permeates that industry, that muttering "I'm sorry" will drive an increase in claims and legal responses by patients and families. But when put into practice, The University of Michigan Health System, an early adopter of allowing workers to extend an olive branch and apology, experienced just the opposite. Claims significantly decreased and average legal expenses dropped by 50 percent. Others in healthcare are experiencing similar results.

Saying "sorry" is not admitting defeat. It's admitting you're human.Customers like that.

The Apology Peace Process involves five actions that signal to customers that they are important and that someone is looking out for them:

  1. Deliver a swift response. Nothing irritates customers more than a company that doesn't acknowledge that a mistake has been made. Don't sweep mistakes under the rug. Get out in front of your customers telling each other about the issue. Be brave enough to admit the mistake and commit to a solution.
  2. Be proactive in identifying issues and accepting accountability. Put a plan into place like Southwest Airlines did. The company reviews every flight daily to understand how customers' lives were interrupted with flight delays, etc. Build a daily process to screen, engage a team, and rescue customers in distress and at risk of walking and taking others with them
  3. Connect in a real and human manner. Get rid of the corporate jargon and legal mumbo-jumbo. "Write like you talk" as Lands' End Founder Gary Comer taught me in all of your communication to customers, especially at these times. Show your true colors with human and empathetic prose.
  4. Solve the problem. I'll say it again-solve the problem. And put a timer on the countdown clock to turn the solution around. Your customers are watching to see if you are working on their time or your own.

Market Hope. Know which customers have been affected by the situation and reach out to them proactively. Then don't be afraid to tell your entire customer universe that you made a mistake and how you solved it, once resolved. You'll be rewarded for the transparency, and be lauded as a "customer action hero."